Cardinal Newman and the Oratory
Edward Van Den Bergh*

The choice of the Oratory

John Henry Newman's life, which fairly spans the 19th century (1801-1890), pivots on the 9th October 1845, which both marks the end of the Anglican period and the beginning of his Catholic life. Yet despite the radical upheaval entailed in his conversion, both spiritual and temporal, the two halves of his life belong to the one man, so that the younger Anglican parson is in a real sense the father of the older Catholic priest.

After 1845 Newman gave his life anew to the service of God's Church, determined to bring with him all the gifts God had been developing in him. Moreover he was the natural head of a group of other former Anglicans who had followed his path to the Catholic Church. Twelve months after his conversion he was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood and to consider the future of his Oxford converts. Just four months later (February 1847), he formally expressed his wish to become an Oratorian and by the end of June the new priest was a novice of the Oratory of St Philip Neri.

Newman did not know a single Catholic in October 1845. This rapidity in selecting a religious institute, especially of an institute previously unknown in England, is therefore striking, since familiarity and personal contact so often play a part in such decisions. More remarkable still is that this choice, not binding in canon law, should have bound him so strongly until his death 43 years later.

St Philip Neri and the Oratory

The Oratory is a secular institute of priests who live together in one place without vows. Its origin is with St Philip Neri (1515-1595), the Florentine saint and mystic who came to Rome as a youth never to leave it, and effectively reformed Church in that city during the 16th century by a life of prayer, though unadorned preaching, and the provision of the sacraments especially that of penance. The name Oratory is taken from the place where young men would meet Philip for prayer, and from the prayer itself.

St Philip's profound experience of the love of God spilled over into games, excursions and music, transmitting the beauty of holiness and allowing people to recognise the possibility of sanctity in everyday life, at all levels of society. For those who believed that sanctity was only for the cloister St Philip's life showed that the world could be a cloister.

Unlike his friend St Ignatius, St Philip had no grand design. The Oratory grew around him organically — almost inspite of his wishes — bound together by the love others had for him. In his humility he would never claim the title "founder", nor would he allow any vows which would bind members, but insisted that love be the only bond. The Oratory was officially recognised by the Church in 1575 and the approved "Rule" was hardly more than a just an ordered description of the life that the members were already living together in community, so that St Philip's love of loving liberty was written between every line.

Newman and St Philip

St Philip is known as the Apostle of Christian joy; the playful Florentine practical joker, forever being met in the streets with his smelly dog and comic books. The same mind may turn to John Henry Newman to see an intense intellectual; the cold English scholar, beset by difficulties and about to write another earnest tract in his library. The two men may seem to be separated by something more than just three centuries.

Yet, inspite of that, Newman's (1853) portrait of St Philip almost applies to himself too: "He comes to Rome without a friend or acquaintance; he dies 60 years after in the arms of Cardinals. He starts with the saintliness of youth, he finishes with the saintliness of old age. He lives long enough for two lives, he has two sets of friends".

Equally, Pope John Paul II's (1979) description of St Philip in Rome could read for Newman in Birmingham: "a man of culture and charity, of study and organization, of teaching and prayer. For Rome he was a tireless confessor, a brilliant educator and a friend of all, and particularly he was an expert counsellor and a delicate director of consciences".

Years before Newman had heard St Philip's name, he was convinced, both in his preaching, and in his pastoral practice, of the importance and even necessity of personal influence in religion. From the moment he received Anglican orders in 1824 he was assiduous in visiting every member of his Oxford parish. He sought them out and treated them as he found them, eventually drawing back to Sunday services many who had wandered. This was as successful as it was spontaneous and unusual, and it was recorded that "Newman's labours in that parish far exceeded any that could be named in other Oxford parishes at that date".

This duty towards souls and the method of personal influence was continued in his work at the University. Newman saw his pupils through his minister's eyes: "With such youths he cultivated relations... almost of equality... seeking their society in outdoor exercise on evenings and in Vacation". So that "the hold he had acquired over them led to their following him on to sacred ground, and receiving directly religious instruction from his sermons".

These sermons struck people for their content, but also "there was the style, always simple, refined, and unpretending". This simplicity revealed that the thoughts conveyed "sprang from the heart and experience of the speaker". By this Newman "seemed to enter into the very minds of his hearers, and... to tell them their very inmost thoughts". It was exactly this, writes the auditor, which gave Newman a hold over Oxford and gave power to the Oxford Movement for the reform of the Anglican church.

These are the exact qualities said of the preaching of St Philip, who thus gained a hold over Rome and reformed it. When therefore Newman found St Philip's institute in Rome, he intuitively recognised it for what it was. St Philip resonated with Newman and gave him a model of sanctity and charity.

Newman's beloved Oxford seemed again to be recomposing before his eyes when he saw that structurally "the nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know [is] one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities". The Oratory was therefore a solution not only for himself; but for the other Oxford men who had followed him. It allowed him to continue in the Catholic Church as himself, not only pastorally, but also theologically and spiritually. He had worried that if he had become a religious (especially a Jesuit) then "no one would know that I was speaking my own words: or was a continuation, as it were, of my former self". Such a problem would not arise in an Oratory, which is a community of individuals.

An unvowed stable community is a unique feature of the Oratory, and it provides the daily mortifications that refine an Oratorian soul to fit it for God. Newman recognised early on that this mortification is not only daily, but also the most thorough going. To submit oneself in love to God and to others every day is the distillation of the Christian life, an imitation of and participation in Christ's love for us; such love comes from the heart.

Heart Speaks unto Heart

St Philip's whole life was marked by the extraordinary palpitation of his heart, which has become a physical symbol of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in him. Many penitents recalled being overwhelmed by the love of God when resting their heads on Philip's chest. The emblem of St Philip, and by extension, of the Oratory, is a heart inflamed with God's love. As Newman watched St Philip his own heart responded. As he later wrote, "St Philip, like St Paul, wanted to influence by personal sympathy and love rather than command". St Philip's method thus spoke to his own teaching and experience in Oxford: that nothing substitutes for "the intercourse of soul with soul, the play of mind upon mind". Newman also had a profound devotion to the Sacred Heart, and he even composed an Office of the Heart of St Philip. Looking at the Oratory, surely Newman faintly heard Philip's heart and so decided his course.

Felicitously, Newman's family crest consisted of an arrangement of hearts, and when made Cardinal he retained these elements and chose the motto Heart Speaks unto Heart. This comes from a letter of St Francis de Sales, who was a pupil of St Philip's school of the heart. It expresses perfectly Newman's attraction to St Philip, it recognises the power of the work of Newman's ancient master St Augustine, and it ultimately summarises the relationship God calls us to with him, and which Newman gave himself to through his life in St Philip's Oratory at Birmingham.

*Brother of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, London


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 September 2010, page 8

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